Room for two

New Yorker, Grantland go head to head on Iditarod coverage

Certainly a thousand-mile race across the vast empty expanse of the Alaskan wilderness has room for two massive, longform articles about it, right? That is the question that occurred to me when I saw that both Ben McGrath of The New Yorker and Brian Phillips of Grantland had written epics about the Iditarod, the fabled Alaskan dogsled race.

Just before their pieces appeared, I happened to be working on an article for The New York Times about an NFL player named John Tuggle, a fullback who was the very last draft choice back in 1983, thus rendering him that year’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” After overcoming long odds to make The New York Giants, Tuggle died of cancer in 1986. The subject was rather obscure, so imagine my shock when ESPN notified me that it was airing a video short about Tuggle on Grantland, several days before my article was to run.

As it happened, there was room for both stories, which I felt complemented each other. Was that the case with the two Iditarod pieces?

In my reading, absolutely. I found myself toggling back and forth between the two stories, helped greatly by the fact that I read McGrath’s work in the print magazine, while Phillips’s is online only. I found myself wishing I was reading them on a flight over the North Pole, en route to some great adventure of my own.

McGrath is a seasoned journalist who handles the overview of the race deftly, while Phillips is more of an impressionist, who chose to concentrate less on the race and the racers and more on the environment they crossed. McGrath’s piece fits into the classic New Yorker form—chronological, superbly reported, displaying a point of view without being overly personal. Its title, “The White Wall,” refers to a term used by the mushers to describe the hallucinatory canvas of their snowy parka hoods, one of many revelatory details in the work.

The title of Phillips’s piece, “Up In The Great Alone,” also captures its ethos. The article is essentially a memoir of covering the race and a meditation on its unique place in the sporting pantheon. The production department at Grantland is as much the star of this piece as the writer; it is a triumph of interactive graphics.

McGrath told me via email that he discovered there was a competing story afoot when

I got a text message from a mutual acquaintance, mentioning that Brian’s Facebook status placed him in Wasilla [Alaska]. Well, I should say that I began to suspect it at that point. Then, maybe the next day, I saw someone who looked like Brian at a press conference in Anchorage, and introduced myself. (He’s married to an old friend of mine from college, but we’d never met.) The coincidence fit a larger pattern in my experience of Alaska, which was as much like a small town where everybody knows everybody as it was the vastest place I’d ever been.

Whereas most writers I know (including me) would have been crushed or enraged to discover that another gifted talent from a huge publication was on the same story, McGrath was nonplussed. “It was nice—we didn’t talk much about our respective pieces, but you can’t help but end up being part of the same conversations and sharing impressions.”

Phillips likewise was not worried about the double coverage. “I don’t think it affected my story at all,” he said, also via email. “From the outset, it was clear that Ben had actual professional journalistic skills and knew how to, for example, ‘interview someone,’ whereas most of my time at checkpoints was spent in various stages of skulking and/or getting lost on the way to the Tang dispenser.”

Both pieces illuminate the impossibility of covering the race via any method save small airplane. Phillips actually had to learn how to fly the small Super Cub (“the size of a Chevy Traverse”) he hired for the race, in case of emergency. The overhead view is thus not just a way of approaching the story, but literally how the writers viewed the action, and Phillips takes us thrillingly into the air (and the storms encountered in the wild blue yonder) with him.

“I was DYING to write this piece,” he said, “but following the race is so expensive and difficult that I never thought I’d have the chance…. How could something so extremely spectator-unfriendly exist as a professional sport? It just seemed to take sports to a place that verged on religion, or maybe madness, and I found it incredibly compelling.”

Indeed, Phillips writes a great deal about how the vast icepacks and snowfields he encountered from above affect him emotionally. McGrath’s approach is more earthy, covering the history of the event, sticking with a couple of compelling main characters, and pondering the profusion of canine droppings he encounters (and lists some of the mushers’ euphemisms for those droppings—hockey pucks, stalagmites, and walnut veneer are just a few). “It all looked like dog shit to me,” he writes in the piece.

The vastness of the Iditarod and its setting easily accommodated two enormous stories. But I’d bet that a combined 20,000 or so words from McGrath and Phillips on the National Marbles Tournament would be equally compelling.


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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , , ,